Desperate Housewives: Housewives Confidential
After eight seasons, countless watercooler conversations, and one very contentious lawsuit, ABC's primetime sudser is about to sign off. We take a long walk down Wisteria Lane with the actors, execs, and creators who made suburbia sex again
- TV Show
For the first time in years, Desperate Housewives is captivating America again — for reasons its creator and cast can’t be happy about. Former star Nicollette Sheridan sued Touchstone Television for wrongful termination after the show’s creator Marc Cherry killed off Sheridan’s man-eating alter ego, Edie Britt, in spring 2009. The details were scandalous (Cherry testified that Sheridan called costar Teri Hatcher ”the meanest woman in the world”), and the three-week trial culminated in a verdict reminiscent of Housewives‘ famous cliff-hangers: A judge declared a mistrial due to a hung jury.
The publicity around the trial is a fitting coda for the eight-year-old ABC dramedy, which will sign off with a two-hour finale on May 13 at 9 p.m. Housewives launched in 2004 alongside some of the most critically acclaimed series of the last decade — Lost, House, and Veronica Mars — yet it dominated headlines thanks to Cherry’s uncanny ability to illuminate the lives of suburban wives without pandering or condescension. The travails of Wisteria Lane’s klutzy divorcée Susan Mayer (Hatcher), frazzled mom Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman), WASPy homemaker Bree Van de Kamp (Marcia Cross), and suburban sexpot Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria) were addictive and sordid, yet somehow relatable. Is it normal to hate your kids sometimes? (Sure!) Does every household have its share of dirty secrets? (Definitely!) Is it okay to sleep with your teenage gardener? (Um…) To tell these stories, Housewives deftly mixed comedic moments with drama and, of course, mystery, starting with the juiciest: Why did Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong) put a bullet in her brain?
To commemorate the end of this pioneering series, EW conducted dozens of interviews with the cast, crew, and writers, who recall Housewives‘ provocative premise, its controversial story lines and effect on the TV industry, and one very gnarly photo shoot.
I. Desperate Beginnings
In 2002, Cherry — an out-of-work TV writer who had early success with The Golden Girls — came up with the premise for Desperate Housewives while watching the trial coverage of Andrea Yates, the depressed Texas mother who drowned her five children in the bathtub.
Marc Cherry I said to my mom, ”Gosh, can you imagine a woman being so desperate that she would resort to such an action?” My mother took her cigarette out of her mouth and said, ”I’ve been there.” That was an astonishing comment to me. She started telling me stories about how desperate she had felt while alone on a farm in Oklahoma with three small children. It suddenly occurred to me: If my mother has had feelings like that, then every woman has had those feelings. I thought, I need to write about this.
Several networks like HBO and CBS, and TV studios like Warner Bros., passed on Cherry’s spec script before Touchstone (which eventually became ABC Studios) bit, with strong support from then president Stephen McPherson and Thom Sherman, then drama chief of sister network ABC. The network’s prime-time schedule was in shambles after overdosing on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Since Sex and the City was ending its run, ABC Entertainment’s newly installed heads, chairman Lloyd Braun and president Susan Lyne, thought there was a dearth of female-centric series and were looking for material to revive the network’s fortunes.
Susan Lyne Lloyd and I agreed: We’re in fourth place, so let’s really swing for the fences this time. Let’s go for shows that — if executed perfectly — could be massive hits. Desperate Housewives was that kind of show.
Lloyd Braun This is very important and I need to say this because Susan won’t. She’s humble. The edict was figure out a way to bring this network back. It was completely Susan’s insight on the opportunity for women in the post-Sex and the City world. It sounds obvious now, but I promise you when you’re in those jobs, nothing is obvious.
Stephen McPherson ”Soap” has a bad connotation for some people, but that show was the first of the shows that came after a long bit of non-serialization — CSI, Law & Order — where there was really just straight, episode-to-episode storytelling. This one really spoke to a different audience.
Cherry People read it and went, ”Well, it’s not that funny.” They were missing the point that it was both comedy and drama, which is one of my eternal frustrations with the people who do comedies. They forget that even when Norman Lear did All in the Family, there would be scenes of enormous drama.
Thom Sherman I said, ”That’s the best title ever. If that show is any good, 15 million American women will want to watch.”
McPherson I remember saying, ”We love this thing, we think it’s fantastic. The one thing, though, is that we’ve got to change the title.” Marc’s face dropped, and all of the blood ran out of his body. I was like, ”I’m joking. We love the title.” To this day, he remembers that.
The next big challenge was finding the right cast. Much of the initial discussion centered on how old the ladies of Wisteria Lane should be.
Gene Blythe, Former ABC EVP, Casting If the woman was three years too old, the casting might look a little tired. But if she was too young, it wouldn’t be believable. Occasionally, you’ll find actors of this age who’ll say, ”I don’t really want my public to know that I’m this old yet.” That’s the tricky thing.
Cherry I remember they said, ”Well, Bree can be 40, but we want the rest of the cast younger.” And I was a little concerned about that because I thought the women were in their late 30s or early 40s, because that’s when you start to get desperate. The actresses we got were all older than what the network wanted, but because they looked so beautiful, no one ever said anything. I think the casting gods were with me.
Sherman Susan came up with a really smart note, which was to age down what came to be Eva Longoria’s character. She said, ”Let’s put a younger character in there, so maybe we can get some more younger viewers.”
Housewives was Hollywood’s hottest script during pilot season: Actresses as varied as Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Heather Locklear, Mary-Louise Parker, and Calista Flockhart were reportedly considered for the show. British pilot director Charles McDougall helped the development execs land the perfect actresses. The team slowly came together: Relative newcomer Longoria and Lois & Clark‘s Hatcher (who had a talent deal with ABC) were cast as Gabrielle and Susan, respectively. Rounding out the quartet were Huffman, who’d starred on the cult favorite Sports Night, for the role of Lynette, and Melrose Place vet Cross as Bree.
Charles McDougall Hundreds of actresses were seen. Eva was the first [to read] for her character. It was clear she was the one.
Eva Longoria I went in for the audition and Marc was like, ”What’d you think of the script?” I was like, ”I didn’t read the script. I just read my part.” He said right then and there that he knew I was Gaby — it was the most selfish thing I could have said.
Blythe She might have even inspired some of her story line.
McDougall Teri bribed us with cookies.
Teri Hatcher [via email] It was one of the best auditions of my career. The kind you leave and on the elevator ride down to the parking lot you think, ”Well, that couldn’t have gone any better. It’s out of my hands.”
McDougall Felicity stormed in swearing that she wanted to kill her kids, which got her the part.
Felicity Huffman I was kind of drowning in motherhood like Lynette, and that’s what really got me the part, so I should thank my children [Sophie and Georgia, who were 3 years old and 22 months, respectively, at the time].
Blythe Bree probably took more time than any other role. There was a warmth issue that the room was divided about. I don’t think she’s cold at all, but Marcia has an archness about her that just is a totally different flavor.
Marcia Cross I said to Marc before I got the part, ”If I do this, I would really want her to have some underbelly that was very interesting.” I’d seen on Oprah where all these women were addicted to Vicodin. Now, that’s a real story! Anybody who’s got to hold it together that tightly, there’s probably some angst underneath.
Soon, the ladies’ husbands and love interests fell into place: Rex Van de Kamp (Steven Culp), Carlos Solis (Ricardo Antonio Chavira), Tom Scavo (Doug Savant), Paul Young (Mark Moses), Mike Delfino (James Denton), and Jesse Metcalfe as the Solises’ 16-year-old gardener John Rowland. Nicollette Sheridan, who had originally auditioned for the role of Bree, joined as Wisteria Lane’s trampy Edie Britt. Brenda Strong completed the core cast as Mary Alice, the show’s narrator who was at the center of the first season’s suicide mystery. The biggest challenge from the get-go was establishing the show’s tone.
Cherry I said, ”I see this kind of like that Edward Scissorhands, a world of pastels and it’s all so lovely and idyllic. It’s got to be a gorgeous background because we’re going to have so many nasty things happening in the foreground.”
McDougall I spent several weekends in the L.A. suburbs as an anthropologist. We used products out of the Sears catalog for an Eisenhower-period feel. Silk wisteria was applied at 10 bucks a stem.
Hatcher [At the first table read] there was a lot less Botox and fillers, fake hair, and boob padding, for sure.
Huffman At the first read-through we took a break. I called my agent and he told me I got Transamerica. I said, ”That’s great! Because this pilot won’t go anywhere.”… You have to assume, particularly if you like it, that it’s not going to go anywhere.
James Denton I told Teri during the pilot, ”It’s a shame nobody’s ever going to see this because it’s really good.” Nobody was watching ABC.
McDougall The test screenings, my first, were fascinating. We could see at which moment the male viewers’ interest exceeded that of females — depressingly, it was when Eva took her shirt off. Executives said the title had tested poorly and would have to go. Thankfully, the intelligence of the audience was respected.
II. The Housewives Hit It Big
Following a summer-long marketing blitz that put the faces of Longoria, Hatcher, Huffman, and Cross on billboards across the country, Housewives debuted on Oct. 3, 2004, to 21.6 million viewers, making it ABC’s biggest drama launch since NYPD Blue 11 years earlier. In conjunction with Lost, the show helped ABC climb out of the ratings basement.
McPherson We put almost 90 percent of our fall marketing budget against Lost and Desperate Housewives. We figured after that we could build on the success of those and use them as marketing platforms. That fall was really the change from what we had done previously.
Longoria The day after the premiere, everybody was on set — Access Hollywood and Extra and the Today show. I just remember everyone bringing baskets and champagne and everybody celebrating. I was like, ”Oh my God, this is big!”
Cross It was definitely nonstop. It was late nights into the morning. It was photo shoots on the weekends. It was just constantly show up and do what you have to do. It was also a huge learning curve. It’s not like one knows how to do this.
Denton Literally, the show was on the air Sunday — things were different on Monday. We learned to sit in the corner at restaurants or get through the airport a little quicker.
Brenda Strong Early on, I’d be standing in line at Starbucks and I would start to speak, and people’s heads would whip around like, ”Oh my God, that’s the voice.”
Hatcher My first experience at being on the side of every bus was Lois & Clark. When a show hits, the thing I celebrate is feeling a bit of job security.
Larry Shaw, Former Producer In the first half of season 1, the cast went to Oprah. In the second half of season 1, Oprah came to us. She came to our set. That’s how fast we got big.
Housewives artfully blended its overarching mystery of Mary Alice’s suicide — spurred by blackmailing threats from Martha Huber (Christine Estabrook) — with hot-button and often titillating plotlines. There was voyeuristic appeal in watching shiny happy suburbanites engage in seamy activities, be it Gaby’s affair with her underage gardener or Rex’s S&M fetish.
Mark Moses It wasn’t a mystery like Lost — it wasn’t all that complicated — but it was enticing.
Steven Culp People saw themselves in Bree. In the first episode, she upholsters her own furniture, and my wife turned to me and said, ”Wait a minute, I do all that!”
Michael McDonald, ABC Studios EVP There were beautiful women in beautiful outfits, whether Teri was naked in the bushes or Nicollette was washing the car.
Longoria Marc always said that he thought Gaby would be the most hated of the show because of her affair with the young boy and her superficiality, but she was beloved and we thought, ”Whoa! What happened?” It was really nice because you love to hate Gaby.
Jesse Metcalfe I never had morality issues with the story line, I know a lot of people did. Thinking about it, it was pretty controversial. The character was supposed to be 16.
Denton That scene with Nicollette washing her car, that’s the only scene where I took my shirt off for three years. But it’s iconic because they ran the promo over and over. I’m glad that’s over. I’m too old for that.
III. One Red Bathing Suit
While the women played best friends on screen, apparently they had some issues with one another when the cameras weren’t rolling. In early 2005, the four leads and Sheridan were photographed for Vanity Fair‘s May cover. According to the accompanying story, ABC stipulated that Hatcher was never to be placed in the center of the group and could not visit wardrobe first. (Both ended up happening.) Once shooting began, Cross walked off set after seeing Hatcher standing front and center, in a cherry-red bathing suit.
Longoria We did so much press. We were all so exhausted. By the time the Vanity Fair thing came around at the end of [shooting the first year], we were so run-down.
Doug Savant I was at the shoot. Vanity Fair set it up in the most contentious way. I got done with my hair and makeup and I was like, ”I’m going to grab something to eat,” and I was walking toward a makeshift table when a production assistant stopped me and said, ”What are you doing?!… You’ve gotta go to hair and makeup!” and the guy starts taking me there. And I go, ”Hey, buddy? I know it might not look like much, but I’m done! Can I go get something to eat now?” So there was all this tension, and it was one of the most inhospitable environments I’ve been in for a photo shoot.
Denton There’s no disputing the Vanity Fair story happened, but it happened because these women were given this golden opportunity and they all knew they better make the most out of it because Hollywood’s very tough on women. It was just people going, ”Oh my God, this is a huge hit. I better take advantage of it today.” Or ”I don’t want it to be Teri’s show because I need a job after this.” That caused a lot of conflict, understandably.
Cross People thought for a long time that I was the bitch. When they see you on television like that all the time, that’s who they think you are. There’s nothing you can do about that.
Huffman It’s interesting that you put four women together and they go, ”Are they fighting? Are they fighting?” You put four men together and that’s not what their questions are. So I wonder if it’s a bit of a double standard.
Cherry Like any show, we had our days where people got upset at each other and there’d be a little backstage sniping. But I gotta say that the rumors of strife have been greatly exaggerated. It makes me sad because for most of the run of the show, we have been a happy family.
IV. The Sophomore Slump
When it came to ratings and kudos, there wasn’t any fallout from the Vanity Fair imbroglio. After the show won six Emmys, a Golden Globe, and two Screen Actors Guild Awards that first year, its second season premiered to 28.4 million viewers and proved to be just as controversial as the first, but for a different reason: A mystery story line surrounding Wisteria Lane’s first black housewife, Betty Applewhite (Alfre Woodard), who kept her mentally handicapped son chained in the basement, had critics crying foul. Woodard, however, garnered an Emmy nomination for the role.
Alfre Woodard It’s interesting because the short list for the role of Betty Applewhite were me and two established Caucasian actresses, who weren’t high-heeled fancy women either.
Cherry I can now be honest about this: I just didn’t have a good idea…. I might have done something different had I had more time to think about it.
Woodard It was admitted to me. The writers said, ”We’re shoved into a corner right here, our mystery story line is not our strongest suit, so we’re working on that.”
Savant It’s not politically correct, but Alfre’s talents were wasted on our show. It just wasn’t the right fit. I adore her and her talent.
Cherry I became a better showrunner because I went through a year of hell. That’s when I started learning the rule: You must always be planning six months ahead.
Wisteria Lane got an overhaul in season 3, with new writer-producers coming aboard, led by coexec producer Bob Daily, who would eventually go on to run the show. The crowning achievement during that time was the Nov. 5, 2006, episode, ”Bang,” which netted the season’s second-highest audience (22.7 million viewers). Laurie Metcalf played deranged housewife Carolyn Bigsby, who held a group of grocery-store shoppers, including Lynette, hostage. Metcalf too nabbed an Emmy nod.
Cherry We just took the show back and started fresh. After all the problems we had, season 3 took a big step forward. We had our hostage episode, which I was so proud of. We really broke form for that.
Bob Daily I remember a moment where Laurie starts eating a pack of cookies and screaming at her husband, ”I’m breaking my diet!” as he’s cowering in the office of the grocery store. That to me is Desperate Housewives at its best — when you have a really tense dramatic moment and then you get this big nervous laugh out of this woman breaking her diet by ripping into a bag of Oreos.
Cherry The interesting thing in season 3 was that we did all this terrific planning, which went out the window when Marcia called and said, ”I’m pregnant!” So that’s something I’ve also learned: Every season something happens that you don’t plan for.
V. Identity Theft
In those first few years, Desperate Housewives became a cottage industry, spawning videogames, books, dolls, and various international editions — not to mention one very notable homage.
McDonald We’ve always talked about why we didn’t trademark the word Housewives. Bravo has made a six-year run based on that.
Andy Cohen, Bravo EVP We had this show in development, about this group of women in Coto de Caza, Calif., and it was originally called Behind the Gate. Desperate Housewives was heating up, and we realized, Wow, well, what these women are is real housewives. So it was a play — not only on Desperate Housewives but on the idea of what the modern housewife was. Certainly, with The Real Housewives of Orange County holding oranges in the credits, that was absolutely a wink to the original Desperate Housewives ad campaign of the ladies with the apples.
Huffman I went to a store, and I saw a tank top. I pulled it out, and across the front of it, it said, ”I’m a Lynette.” And I went, ”Wow! Wow! Okay, I get it.”
Cherry I’d heard that people do that with the Sex and the City girls. It actually never occurred to me that people would start comparing themselves to these characters.
VI. Housewives Goes Through the Change
At the start of season 5, writers were once again looking for a way to reinvigorate the show and turned to a popular storytelling device of the moment: the flash-forward. When the action on Wisteria Lane picked up on Sept. 28, 2008, the women had aged five years. Bree was a Martha Stewart-like mogul, Mike and Susan were divorced, Lynette was being tormented by her teenage boys, and Gaby was fat (!) with two kids (!!).
Cherry I just thought, I want to do something to shake this show up because I don’t want the formula to get tired. Some of the fans grumbled, but by and large I thought it gave an injection of energy and freshness.
Daily We thought, It’s going to be even more fun next year. At the beginning of that next season, we did a lot of flashback episodes. We probably would have done it more if we could get away with it.
That same season Cherry had another game-changing idea: Kill off Edie Britt. The timing of his brainstorm was at the center of Nicollette Sheridan’s recent wrongful termination lawsuit. Sheridan (who declined to be interviewed for this story) claimed her character was written out after she complained to ABC executives that Cherry had struck her. However, Cherry said he had the idea much earlier. Regardless, in the March 22, 2009, episode ”A Spark. To Pierce the Dark.,” Edie crashed her car into a telephone pole and was electrocuted.
Cherry [testifying on March 7] I thought that it would be a great way to shock the audience because she was such a major character in the show…. It occurred to me that if I killed off a major character like that of Edie Britt…I could apply that salary, which was pretty darn big, and I could get three, potentially four actors for the next year.
Mark Baute, Sheridan’s Lawyer [from his closing argument on March 14] If you are going to kill off a principal character, believe me when I say there would be a private email or a memo or a letter confirming it…. It’s very clear that getting back at her is a motivating reason for the decision.
Mark Pedowitz, Former Touchstone President [testifying on March 6] They felt there was no more storytelling to tell [about Edie] after the season.
Longoria Anytime anybody goes, it’s sad. A lot of people die. Marc always said, ”I’ll never kill one of the four main girls.”
Denton I absolutely loved working with Nicollette. She took us all to [her then boyfriend] Michael Bolton’s show. We had a blast. She’s fun to work with, which is why this whole lawsuit is such a bummer. Everything about it is a bummer.
VII. Suburban Ennui Sets In
As Housewives settled into its later seasons, producers attempted to keep the show fresh with a revolving door of ”fifth” Housewives over the years who included Dana Delany (seasons 4-6 as Katherine Mayfair), who had previously turned down the role of Bree; Drea de Matteo (season 6 as Angie Bolen); and Vanessa Williams (seasons 7-8 as Renee Perry), who shuttled over after ABC canceled Ugly Betty.
Dana Delany Marc said, ”Are you ready to come on the show now?” He played on the history of having offered me the role of Bree originally and said, ”I’d like Katherine to out-Bree Bree.”
Cross Years later when she came on the show, at first I was like, ”Oh! This is who they really wanted!” It was clear that we were so different.
Daily Sometimes, like with Drea, we knew that she had to leave at the end of the season. We always knew that she needed to disappear into nowhere.
Vanessa Williams We were going to be sensitive and not make my character a sports ex-wife because Eva was still married at the time [to San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker, whom she divorced in November 2010], but then we thought, ”Nah, we’ll make him a baseball player.”
As the show burned through stories, plotlines became more outlandish, as evidenced by the annual ”disaster episode,” in which the ladies’ hometown of Fairview was struck by a tornado, fire, plane crash, and riot, consecutively.
Cross It has been really challenging for [the writers]. There’s the idea that they’ve done everything; it’s hard for them to think of new things.
Hatcher Fans became disappointed in Susan’s arc of stories after the first season. I think Wikipedia says, regarding the later seasons, that ”Teri Hatcher managed to stay likable with bad story lines.”
Daily A great part of our day in the writers’ room is spent saying, ”We’ve done that…” We did, toward the end, start to think, ”Are there any natural disasters left?” We’re not in the right climate for volcanoes and floods.
Hatcher When the showrunner says he’s out of story lines, then it’s the right time [to go].
Cherry I’ve had my good seasons and my bad seasons, my good episodes and my bad episodes. Whenever I hear writers in cable talking about the hard work they do, I want to kick them. I’m thinking, Really? Thirteen episodes? You thought that was tough?!
VIII. Wisteria Lane Comes to an End
At the end of season 7, ABC signed all the actors for two more seasons, but in August 2011 the network announced that Housewives would wrap with season 8. The negotiations for the actors were heated — the four leading women were said to be earning north of $400,000 an episode by that point. It created tricky situations for all involved, particularly the husbands on the show, who saw their salaries and number of episodes dwindle in the final season due to budget cuts. The goodbye was made more difficult by the Sheridan trial, which seemed to unearth more gossip by the day. In fact, court proceedings inadvertently spoiled the surprise death of Denton’s Mike Delfino, who was fatally shot in the March 11, 2012, episode.
Savant During contract negotiations, Felicity was willing to literally give up part of her salary so I could be paid a fair salary. It didn’t turn out that way, but that is a gesture that she did make.
Huffman I remember Marc saying to me — I don’t know what year it was — I was talking to him and he said, ”The writers and I all voted, and you and Doug are the most likely to have an affair because you work so well together.” Oh, thank you, I guess? I’m so happy that I got him. I’m just so lucky.
Cherry As I started to see where we were, the ratings — ’cause every year we go down a little bit more — and where the characters were in their lives, I said to ABC, ”I know that you guys don’t like to say goodbye to a show before its time, but I’m telling you that eight seasons of Desperate is enough. I feel strongly about this.” It was so important to me for people to understand the show wasn’t canceled. The creator was making a decision.
Denton Marc asked, ”Could I talk to you for a minute?” I had no idea what it was about. I didn’t think I was getting killed because it was so close to the end.
Hatcher I’ve got to be honest, I think [killing Mike] was a bad idea. It’s sad to me that Susan — who started the series as a single, unloved mother — ends now in the same way.
Longoria How many more affairs can you have? And how many more deaths can you have? Eight years is such a long run…. It’s a blessing and at the same time exhausting. We’re all ready for the closing of this chapter.
Cross I wanted to make sure that we weren’t going to need a cane, I wanted it to be that we could actually walk off the stage ourselves.
Despite the instances of behind-the-scenes drama, the women all have fond memories of their time on Wisteria Lane. And Cherry, whose next project is a pilot for ABC called Devious Maids, promises at least one more big Housewives moment before the end: his idea for the finale that has remained with him since he created the show.
Longoria My favorite moments are still in the pilot, mowing the lawn…. But most of my favorite memories about the show have to do with sitting in my trailer with Marcia or Felicity and talking about life.
Huffman I really enjoyed dancing on the bar. I know that sounds nuts, but it’s the one time where Lynette got to be sexy.
Cross It’s the last episode of the first season, when Bree finds out that Rex has died, and then I just kind of go into this otherworldly state and I start polishing the silver and then, finally, I crack. That represents why I loved her.
Hatcher I think Susan peaked at naked in the bushes.
Cherry I presented at the Writers Guild Awards with Brenda Strong, and we had a ton of time to sit and talk about it. I was looking at her, and I was like, ”It all started with you. It’s going to end with you as well.” The last act — which I’ve had in my head for seven and a half years — is absolutely what we’re going to do.
(Additional reporting by Lynette Rice)
Eva Longoria Parker, Teri Hatcher, Marcia Cross, and Felicity Huffman star in the soap set on the dangerous Wisteria Lane